'You could say La Liga is the best, but the Premier League is the most competitive' - Bale
Published 23/11/2015 | 02:30
If he has a few hours to kill, Gareth Bale loves nothing better than to recline on his sofa and switch on a Premier League game. And because most English football happens during the day and most Spanish football happens at night, he gets to watch a fair amount.
Leicester City and West Ham United have caught his eye so far this season. Manchester City and Arsenal, he says, seem to be "back on track".
Bale vaguely recalls a young Harry Kane joining in a few training sessions at Tottenham but, like everyone else has been astonished by his rise, and hopes he can power his old club back into the Champions League.
With another week of European football upon us, then, it seems an appropriate moment to ask Bale about the current plight of English clubs on the continental stage.
While Bale has ascended to the summit of the game with Real Madrid, the league he left behind could not get a single club into last season's Champions League or Europa League quarter-finals.
La Liga, meanwhile, has provided three of the past four Champions League finalists, six of the past 10 Europa League winners. How does he explain the difference?
Bale looks out over the lush turf of the Bernabeu, where he is sitting in one of the lavish presidential suites in his role as a BT Sport ambassador.
He does not immediately grant the premise of the question. It was only a few years ago, he points out, that Chelsea won the Champions League.
"For me, English teams shouldn't really be in danger," he says. "It's a difficult one to put your finger on. There's a number of reasons. My personal opinion is that the league is so hard.
"Every team fights until the 90th minute. Over the course of 38 games, that takes a lot out of the English teams. If we play a lesser team here, if it's 4-0 at half-time, in the second half you don't have to really graft. At the end of the season we definitely feel fresher."
The travails of Chelsea this season testify to the fact that it is easier being a big fish in the La Liga pond, where the quality is arguably higher but - with the notable exception of Real's 4-0 thumping by Barcelona on Saturday - genuine shocks are rarer.
"You could say Spain is the best league, but the Premier League is probably the most competitive," Bale says. "Bottom could beat top any week."
There are other reasons why Bale says he feels fresher at Madrid than at Tottenham.
"It's two different styles. The British way is fast: hard-tackling, physical, end-to-end. Here, it's more tactical, more about possession."
When Bale was tearing up defences for Tottenham in 2012-13, scoring 26 goals in all, you would probably have been likely to put him in the first category rather than the second.
But La Liga is a different beast, and in many ways so is Bale. Teams come to the Bernabeu, amass all 11 men behind the ball, and try to frustrate. Space is at a premium.
"I've learnt a different style, a more possession-based game. It's definitely made me a better player.
"My plan when I started playing was to try and reach the pinnacle, and Real Madrid is the pinnacle of football teams."
The theme of enjoyment comes up a lot. Bale seems to be enjoying his football and his life in Madrid more than ever.
His Spanish is slowly coming on. His partner, Emma, is expecting the couple's second child.
And, on the pitch, the world's most expensive footballer is playing a more pivotal part than ever in a freer, more central role.
"The system suits my style of play," he says. "I feel like that's my position. I feel like I can drift into areas, find the space, and when I get the ball I can attack."
The theme of responsibility comes up a lot, too. Moving abroad has accelerated the natural maturing process that every footballer goes through. Getting Wales to next year's European Championship finals, occasionally almost single-handedly, has been another liminal experience.
And Real Madrid's troubles last season, their first in five years without a domestic trophy, were another learning process.
"I feel like I've grown up," Bale says. "Especially since I've come over here. You're not in your comfort zone any more, and you have to deal with things.
"Maybe last year I didn't play so well in the second half of the season. In a way, I'm quite glad it happened.
"You learn more from when things aren't going well than if you were just winning."
Bale misses home comforts - of course he does. Mostly the little things: PG Tips, chocolate, Nando's, the daily familiarity of being in your home country.
"The language is probably the one thing I miss the most. Just sometimes being able to have a simple chat with somebody. It's a lot more difficult to do in Spanish."
Unsurprisingly, Spanish is the lingua franca of the Madrid dressing room, and Bale can just about hold his own.
"There's obviously a few who speak English and most people want to practise their English on me, so I'm not learning Spanish so quickly."
When he wants to get away from football, Bale has several outlets. He can go home and spend some time with his family. He plays golf, a pursuit he has become "obsessed" with over the years. Or he can go to Txistu, a popular restaurant in Madrid, where the staff greet him by name and prepare his favourite dish of egg and chips.
Here you will rarely find Bale is out on the town, grinning at the paparazzi, adorning the gossip magazines.
As our time runs out, we return to the theme of enjoyment and Bale sketches out perhaps the nearest thing he has to a personal credo.
"People take things too seriously in life. For me, it's just about enjoying everything. I don't read a lot of media, unless my friend sends me something funny."
Where does he see himself in 20 years' time?
"Playing golf," he jokes, before remarking that he lives too much in the present to have given the matter too much thought.
"I don't feel like I'm the 'coach' type, to be honest. I've got other interests outside of the game.
"I'm not 100pc sure, but at the moment I'm not really thinking about going into football, after football."